CEFA mourns Dame Leonie Kramer

It was with great sadness CEFA learned of the passing of Dame Leonie Kramer last week. 

CEFA’s CEO, Kerry Jones said “Dame Leonie was a vital asset to CEFA in its early days, and an inspiration to me personally, who will be sorely missed for her wonderful personality, her depth of understanding, and her commitment to public life and education”.

Dame Leonie was the chair of CEFA’s Foundation Council of eminent Australians who lent their patronage to CEFA at its foundation stage.  She served as a trustee and a member of the judging panel for the Governor-General’s Prize.  She was also a generous benefactor.

She will be remembered for her great contribution to so many areas of Australia’s national life: in the academy, she taught Australian literature to generations of Australians, before serving as Chancellor of the University of Sydney; in the business world, she served on the boards of numerous companies, including Western Mining, ANZ, and the NRMA; and in the public sector, she chaired the ABC and NIDA, and was involved with a range of other government agencies, ranging from the NSW Board of Studies to the National Library.

Dame Leonie was committed to public intellectual life in too many ways to mention briefly.  This commitment was most beautifully captured in the 2001 festschrift, Matters of the Mind: Poems, Essays and Interviews in Honour of Leonie Kramer.

She was an appointed delegate at the 1998 Constitutional Convention and a member of the No Case committee appointed by Prime Minister Howard.

Her accolades were many and varied.  They included her appointments as a Companion of the Order of Australia, a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and Bicentennial Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University.

As a tribute to Dame Leonie and her commitment to CEFA’s work, we have republished a short article she wrote in 2004.

Past’s colourful lesson for the future

Written by Dame Leonie Kramer in 2004

I shall not begin by asking an invidious question - how many of us have read the Constitution, and if we have, how many of us could give a brief account of it? For the sake of discussion, I’ll take the pessimistic view, and assume that it would not be the kind of writing that we would prefer to a novel, detective story, a favourite gardening book or romance.

Many of us belong to organisations of various kinds. Most have articles of association, or other documents which state the aims and objectives of the organisation, and the rules by which it is governed. I suspect that it is only if something goes wrong that we refer to the rules, which are there to guarantee the proper running of the enterprise, and to deal with problems that might arise in its management. So it is with the Constitution.

So how do we teach young people about it? By young I mean no later than the beginning of secondary school, preferably even earlier.

And why should we? Because it is the founding document of Australian democracy, and in a time of uncertainty its integrity is paramount.

I believe that it is through history that we need to approach the educational problem. Disraeli, speaking in the House of Commons in 1874, said, “Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends,” and so it is today.

So how do we go about our most important task? Difficult though it is, I think the best approach is through history. The past has a colourful, dramatic, and sometimes horrifying story to tell us about how we came to inherit freedom and stability instead of tyranny, political violence and persecution. If we look back at the past, first at Britain and then at Australia, we can identify some major events and themes which are accessible to young people and will excite their imaginations.

In today’s schools, history is not trapped in the pages of text books, though the written word is still essential to full understanding. There are many TV, multimedia and IT programs which give students a feel for the living past. British history, unlike ours, is full of drama, bloodshed and conflict, from which democracy and constitutional monarchy have emerged triumphant.

Remote though it now is in time, we owe our way of life to those who over centuries persevered in their struggle to live their lives as they wished, and for freedom to think and speak their minds.

To be fully understood, however, it needs to begin in Britain even as far back as Magna Carta (1215), a charter of liberties accepted by King John under threat of civil war. It influenced the state and federal constitutions of the United States. Then there were the struggles between church and state and Henry VIII’s autocratic cruelty. Later the struggle between Charles I and parliament led to civil war in 1640, and it was during this period that the Pilgrim Fathers, persecuted for their religious beliefs, set sail for America and founded a settlement there.

From this point it would be helpful to students to skip to the middle of the eighteenth century, to the story of James Cook, whose extraordinary voyages link the English story with our own.

Given the size of Australia and the fragility of its early settlement, it’s astonishing that by 1901 we had achieved Federation, thanks to a remarkable group of eminent citizens who drafted the Constitution, and to a public which finally voted it into law.

This is no more than a sketch of the possibilities that we need to consider as we plan our educational enterprise. It is a challenge that I’m sure you’ll all want to help us to meet.

Our reward will be to know that we have done our best to secure a sound future for our successors.